Thursday, November 15, 2007

How To - Handlebar tape

At first thought installing handlebar tape doesn't seem too complicated. Just wrap the bars, right? I've seen a lot of people come into the shop, buy tape, look at the package, then look up and ask, "So, this is pretty straight forward right?"


It's when you actually do it that you realize it's a little more than "just" wrapping the bars.

Bar tape is unique in that there is an infinite number of ways to install it. Maybe not infinite but something like that - a math major might have a better handle on that one. You can start at the top or the bottom, wrap over or under (think toilet paper - do you install a new roll over or under?), you have to figure out the bit by the brake lever, and finally you have to figure out the bit at the end.

It's not like, say, a rear derailleur. If you install a rear derailleur incorrectly, it simply doesn't work. But a poor wrap job? It's not critical to your bike's performance. However, a poor wrap job reflects on its rider, and since people judge others first by appearance (where do you think stereotypes come from?), it's better to broadcast that you know what you're doing.

Anyway, I've been waiting to wrap bars so I can take a pic or thirty, but with about 1100 miles on two bikes since March of this year, I really haven't had an excuse. See, typically I'd rewrap bars when the tape got dirty (black tape dirty?), it ripped (nope), or I wanted a change of scenery (my five sets of black tape doesn't really allow me that luxury). My old "wrap my bars every week" habit died a decade ago but even so, I thought I'd be wrapping tape much earlier than eight months later. Alas, that was not the case.

Then the Cannondale showed up. With a new bike and swapping bars, at least temporarily, came the chance to wrap some bars.

Here's how I do it:

(With props to SOC who mentioned this, use nitrile (it's non-allergic), latex (you can get allergic to it), or other thin gloves to keep your grubby hands from dirtying up your precious new tape.)

1. Wrap a lot of electrical tape around the cable housing that will sit under your tape. It used to be that with flexy and compliant housing and much stiffer and stronger bar tape, the bar tape would hold the housing in place. Now, with the rigid index shifting housing and even the somewhat stiffer brake cable housing combined with thinner and stretchier bar tape, that is no longer the case. The bar tape has a function - it's for you to hold. It's not designed to hold cable housing in place.

2. Start wrapping the tape at the open part of the bar, towards the end of the drops. Work your way to the stem. This allows the tape to overlap correctly, to "fishscale" correctly. Your hands naturally slide from the center of the bars towards your levers. If the tape overlaps with the edges facing the stem, you'll peel the tape back, slowly but surely. If the tape overlaps with the edges facing the brake lever, nothing happens. Well, eventually the tape slides a bit, but that's unusual with the current generation of adhesive. Tape wrapped too loosely will slide but that's not the tape's fault. I wrap from the inside, over the bar. If you do it the other way it's up to you, but I've found the "over" direction works well.

3. Use an extra piece of tape (Cinelli supplies you with pre-cut one which you'll probably have to trim) under the brake lever. It allows you to avoid wrapping tape over and over around the lever while trying to hide the bit of handlebar peeking out at you. That multiple lap wrap results in unsightly bulges. The extra piece avoids all that.

4. End the tape cleanly using electrical tape, optionally covered by the manufacturer's end tape.

Some goals for a professional bar wrap job:

1. No unsightly lumps in the tape - it should be relatively even in thickness from end to center.

2. No peeking handlebar.

3. Securely wrapped tape - no tape rotating around the bars in a sprint.

4. Cleanly finished edges, bottom and top.

5. Wrap job should last until the tape compresses (Cinelli and the like), gets dirty (any light tape), the tape rips (crash, rough stone wall, drop bike, etc), or you swap bars or teams (the latter perhaps determining a new bar tape color). The tape really shouldn't move, it should never peel, and there aren't a lot of other reasons to change tape. In my heyday I'd rewrap the bars weekly with white Cinelli, the tape that's about the easiest in the world to get dirty.

Pictures work better than words so here is a set, from start to finish, of a bar wrapping procedure. Note that all the comments refer to the picture above the comment.

Note the electrical tape is holding the housing to the bars securely. I have extra laps of tape at the brake lever to hold the cable housing securely - the gear housing is particularly rebellious. I've already determined the brake levers are even. This is critical since it's hard to move a wrapped-bar lever. It's relatively easy to move an electrical-taped-only lever.

I cut the tape at an angle to start it without lumping. The left side looks like this.

The right side like this - note the tape starts inside, wraps over, and continues. Mirror image to left side.

Back to the left side. I always cut the bottom of the tape on the left side. On the right side, I always cut from above. The angle is the same (I'm right handed so it's easier to cut to the right, like the picture above). This way the wrap rotation mirrors each other - a detail but then again, this whole post is about details.

I start the tape using the cut part - the actual start of the roll is at the bottom of the bar (where my finger turns pink). Then I wrap over the top from the inside. This is the left side of the bar.

Here is the first bit of wrap - notice no lumps, no unsightly or uneven tape sticking out past the end of the bar. Very smooth, it could be a grip instead of tape. That's your goal - smooth like a grip.

Next, the piece under the lever. Note how on the outside of the bar the short piece is tilted down a bit - this is because the main tape will wrap around the upper part of the lever naturally. The inside of the lever is covered up higher because the main tape wraps the lower inside. The small piece of tape is therefore placed at an angle - perhaps 30 degrees from parallel to the lever. It is not straight on purpose.

The main tape approaches - you can see how it will wrap over the top of the lever next. However, if the little piece wasn't tilting forward, you'd have a gap just above the main tape, just under the lever. Not pro.

Now the main tape has completed its wrap to the top. Everything is nicely covered, inside and out. From here you wrap to the center of the bar.

When you get to the center, pick out an end line for the tape. This line should work on both sides of the bars - so if you have a bar mounted computer or light or something on one side, take that into account on the other side. A "winter" wrap might end really far from the stem to give room for lights and stuff, but a "summer" wrap may go to the beginning of the taper for the bulge. In the old days the bar had two layers of metal here so you'd always have a nice solid line. Nowadays, with bulges, there's no real "line". Make one up, measure to be sure, and note where your tape will end on each side. Once you do that, hold the tape out like I'm doing in the picture above - you're going to cut along a line that is exactly in line with your target "end line". My target end line is just to the left, perhaps 1-2 mm, of the shiny bit on the bar (the shiny stuff is electrical tape).

This demonstrates where I chose to "end" my tape. I've cut along the edge, ending the cut where my index finger is touching the tape. You'll find the tape twists and turns when you cut it - it's critical that you hold the bar tape without stretching it or otherwise applying tension to it. This cut will essentially replicate the effort you made at the beginning of the whole process, when you cut an angle at starting end of the tape.

Wrap the cut end until you get to the end. Notice no lump since tape is tapering along the cut line.

For reference, I'm showing the right side. Note it's the mirror image to the left. Now comes the finesse part (as if there's been no finesse so far).

Start by lining up the tape along the cut edge. Electrical tape stretches if you pull on it - and if you stretch it, it gets longer and it gets narrower and changes color (lighter). If you start with a less tensioned wrap, you start with a wide base of tape. If you then stretch the tape, the layer underneath shows up. So this first bit is not tensioned. Therefore it is black and it is wide.

The second bit is tensioned. It is narrower and it turned a little grey. This is the end of the first full lap of tape. I've tensioned the tape and wrapped it so the edge of the electrical drops off the inside edge. The tape, designed to stretch in order to seal gaps, stretches down to the side of the tape. It ends at the bar, covering the cut edge of the main tape. Note that in the picture you cannot see any Cinelli tape under the electrical tape.

Then the electrical tape goes around once, no tension, to cover the stretched and discolored electrical tape underneath. Do only one lap without tension - you don't need to do more. When you finish you'll have a lap that quickly goes from no tension (since it's hard to start with tension) to tension. A lap without tension follows. Your total will be about 2.5 laps, maybe 3. This was the finesse part.

Finally the plug. You have to have your bar ends plugged to race, it's a rule. Prevents "apple core" wounds. Now whether they're mythical or not, I don't know, but I don't want to take a 1 cm wide biopsy of my thigh. So I plug my bars. Since I don't like lumps and cut the beginning edge of the tape, the plug is slightly under the required diameter. I use electrical tape to make up for it, usually only two laps or so. If you put too many laps of tape, you'll break the plug when you force it in. You're going to rely on the squishy tape and it's higher friction (compared to the plastic plug) to hold the plug in place.

The wrapped plug.

The wrapped plug going into the bar.

And finito! Grab a beer and celebrate.

Bonus Tip - Before Cinelli shipped their bars with unfinished plugs like the black plastic plug in the pictures, they used to paint them with a chrome color finish. This finish would wear off slowly over thousands of miles of riding. The plug would slowly reveal its base color, the color of the plastic under the chrome paint. Since Cinelli finished the plug with paint, it appeared they didn't care about the plastic's color - the plastic base color varied randomly. A sign of a "real" rider was:
1. The chrome wearing off the plastic
2. And the plastic would be a non-standard color (white and black were standard, but if you had a different color, maybe blue, yellow, red, or grey, those were really cool).

This led to bar plug collections at the shop, at least for me - a little bin of unusual colored Cinelli plugs saved for the next "cool" build. Once installed you'd rediscover only after a few thousand miles of riding when suddenly you realized that under the chrome paint you had a pink or green or some weird color Cinelli plug.

Super Bonus Tip - For very high end bike builds, we'd match the plugs' mold color to the bike - so for example a red bike got red plastic plugs. Since all the plugs were painted that chrome paint, it would take the customer thousands of miles to learn the painstaking detail that went into building that bike.

The unfinished plugs take all the fun out of it now.

Enjoy your bar wrapping.


Anonymous said...

No wonder you don't train much. This post alone must have taken 3 hours to compile! Keep up the the good work. Enjoying the stories most of all. Eventually I'll start writing in my blog, but not until I think I an keep up with your fury.

--Mike Starr (YMCA)

Aki said...

lol it might have been 3 hours. I wrote a lot of it in March but had no pictures. Without images I felt it would be too much to describe in text.

If you look at the clock on the computer on the bars, you'll see that the times range from 9:4x to 9:5x (PM). I spent about 30 minutes wrapping the bars, taking pictures, etc - when I came upstairs the missus asked what took so long. Usually it's a 10 minute job but this one took 10 minutes per side.

btw although I post somewhat frequently and I drone on and on in my posts, I wouldn't think of this blog as a "standard". Well presented, I could probably cut my posts in half.

When you can't quell the need to share everything anymore, then it's time to blog. A lot of my post material (how-to, tactics, equipment) comes from emails, forum posts, or simply stuff I had to teach people. The stories are simply stories I've shared with friends (or perhaps they were there too). I find forums stimulate my thought processes as people ask the most straight forward questions.

Anonymous said...

Nice post. I prefer to start the wrap by putting a little of the tape in the bar end to hold the plug in place. I find it cleaner and less likely to fray at the end of the bar.

Anonymous said...

Might have been easier to see the pics if you'd turned the light on! lol

Thanks for the 'how to' though. I've been wondering how to do this.

Aki said...

ha! Until you posted your comment, I didn't realize how dark it looked. I actually had ALL the lights in the room on. It seemed pretty bright. I think the flash created artificial shadows, making things look darker than they really were.

SSIndyRider said...

I can sort of attest to "apple core" injuries. As a kid the rubber grips had worn off the ends of the bars of my hand-me-down bike and when I fell once, the bar-end hit my throat, leaving a nice red ring of cut skin (but not actually cored).

schmatie said...

I just got armadillo street tires for my black/red schwinn single-speed. do i go matchy/matchy and get red warps? go fierce and do the all black thing? or possibly go with an outlandish color such as neon green?

Anonymous said...

This is the most AWESOME tutorial ever! Great photos of the key mess up points (now I know how to angle my tape at the start and end points)!

Thanks for being so anal about handlebar tape!


Anonymous said...

Applecore wounds are real - I've got one on my ankle (admittedly from an old motorbike I had as a kid but exactly same concept). They hurt for a long time.

Go with the plugs.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your detailed instructions. I made my first attempt last night, with a couple of problems. First, I pulled the "tape" too hard and broke it. Oops! Second, the tape was not generous in length, even when unbroken, and I ended up short on the remaining side. Next time I'll not overlap so much I guess.

I had some double-sided tape left over from insulating vents, and decided to use that to wrap around the bar at the start to help guard against premature unfurling.

Thanks again.


Aki said...

Tom - Glad the post helped. Overlapping as little as possible is usually the safe way to do it. Tape manufacturers cut the tape about as short as they can.

Anonymous said...

thanks heaps for the detailed explanation - I will make reference to it when the time comes in the not too distant future when I need to do my first retape...

A question though on the first of the pictures where you've taped the cable to the back of the bar, not in the groove. Is there a particular reason for this?

Aki said...

Anon - There are two reasons I tape the cable to the back. First, the bar has just one groove, for the brake cable. It's a "pre-ergo" bar.

Second is I like a wider, flatter bar up top (kind of like the carbon bars you can get nowadays). I like bars with no grooves the best, and currently that's what I use. If I have to use a grooved bar, I'll fill the front groove with the brake cable and put the gear cable on the back of the bar.

John L said...

This is still my go to method for wrapping, I've lost count how many people I've sent to this post.

One set of bars has gone two seasons and the wrap job is still intact (however, after two seasons I'm afraid of what's crawling under there)


Aki said...

Great to hear that your tape job has held up. It's one thing to describe how to do it, another for someone to actually execute well. And I hope that everyone you directed to the post had an equally good tape job!

ui said...

Thanks for a great article - I'v just put in to practice to do my tape for the first time in....ever!

Anyway everything worked like a dream as per your blog so thankyou :-)


Aki said...

Glad it worked out and thanks for the kind words!